Unlikely duo: Pennsylvania Democrats aim for united front
HARRISBURG — One candidate is unabashedly blunt, willing to embrace progressive positions, doing little to build rapport with party leaders and dominating rooms with a 6-foot-8-inch frame. The other crafts a more moderate image, a deliberate public speaker who became a congressional aide out of college and has carefully cultivated relationships within the party ever since.
In both style and substance, John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro strike dramatically different profiles.
Yet their fate — and that of the Democratic Party — is intertwined in a pair of Pennsylvania elections that will be among the most closely watched in the U.S.
Fetterman offers Democrats their clearest path to picking up a U.S. Senate seat, which could go a long way in helping the party keep control of the chamber.
Shapiro, meanwhile, poses even larger existential questions as he faces a Republican rival for governor who has embraced conspiracies about the last presidential election and would have significant influence over running the next one in the premier battleground state.
“The stakes have never been higher, the contrast has never been clearer,” Shapiro told state Democratic Party committee members at their Saturday meeting in Gettysburg. “This commonwealth has the power to decide whether we have the 51st senator. This commonwealth has the power to decide whether the great experiment that started in the city of Philadelphia 245 years ago continues.”
With the stakes so high, Fetterman and Shapiro are working toward a united front ahead of the fall election.
They are participating in a coordinated campaign funded and run by national and state party organizations, including the Democratic National Committee, Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Together, these groups could send more money to Pennsylvania than anywhere else to register and persuade voters as part of what the state party calls “the largest and earliest midterm coordinated campaign in Pennsylvania history."
Such help from national organizations may be badly needed in a big swing state.
After backing Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign, Pennsylvania swung to Joe Biden in 2020 — but only by about 1 percentage point. And Democrats gearing up for the 2022 campaign are already facing huge challenges.
Fetterman suffered a stroke just days before winning his party's nomination for the Senate race last month and has not yet returned to the campaign trail, or given much indication when he will do so. And both candidates will be running in a difficult environment for Democrats, weighed down by Biden's unpopularity and rising prices for everyday goods, food and gasoline.
Aides to both campaigns say the coordination has already begun.
Fetterman's and Shapiro's campaigns say they have been in touch often, and Shapiro said he has texted with Fetterman since Fetterman's stroke.
Campaign aides say they expect the men will appear together at bigger events, such as rallies, regional campaign office openings or party events to raise money, help boost turnout or highlight down-ticket candidates.
Earlier this month, Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, stood in for him at an event with Shapiro where they spoke at the opening of a coordinated campaign office in Pittsburgh.
“I look forward to getting John out here, and I know he's chomping at the bit to get out, too,” Shapiro said Friday. Fetterman’s campaign said in a statement that “we look forward” to campaigning with Shapiro and helping other Democrats on the fall ballot.
For now, Fetterman's health hangs over the campaign amid questions about whether he has been honest about the severity of his condition.
Fetterman's neurologists and cardiologist have not taken questions from reporters, and the campaign took three weeks after the stroke to disclose that he also had a serious heart condition.
Republican campaign coordination is run through the Republican National Committee, but the party's top-of-the-ticket candidates — celebrity heart surgeon turned Senate candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz and gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano — are making no firm commitments so far toward campaigning together.
In a statement, Oz's campaign said he “supports the Republican ticket in Pennsylvania because he believes we’ve got to send a message to Joe Biden about inflation, gas prices, and the out of control crime problem" and “looks forward to seeing (Mastriano) out on the trail this summer.”
The campaigns haven't said whether Oz and Mastriano have even met, other than exchanging text messages after their respective primary victories. Mastriano's campaign did not respond to questions.
Mastriano is viewed warily by party leaders and campaign strategists. He has spread Trump's lies about widespread election fraud in the 2020 presidential election and was a leading proponent in Pennsylvania of Trump’s drive to overturn the result. He also was in the crowd outside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6, 2021, attack by Trump supporters after attending the “Stop the Steal” rally nearby.
If they do campaign together, it may be uncomfortable: Mastriano, a state senator, endorsed a rival to Oz in the primary and criticized Oz on the campaign trail, suggesting at one point that Oz is really a liberal and a carpetbagger — a nod to Oz moving from his longtime home in New Jersey to run in Pennsylvania.
Plus, before Mastriano was elected to the state Senate in 2019, he repeatedly posted Islamophobic material on Facebook. Oz is Muslim.
In a statement, the RNC said it has been “on the ground” in Pennsylvania since 2016, training and mobilizing activists, registering voters, opening offices and working with the state party and its nominees.
For now, Republicans are trying to paint Fetterman and Shapiro as extreme, but also zeroed in on Fetterman's stroke in a digital ad, suggesting he has not been honest about the effects of it.
“Has John Fetterman been telling the truth about his health?” says a narrator in the digital ad by the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Democrats insist they aren't worried about Fetterman recovering from the stroke, and Colleen Guiney, the party chair in Delaware County, said it will only be talked about as a distraction from important issues, such as Republican attempts to destroy the county's democracy and render the Senate dysfunctional through the filibuster.
Fetterman has avoided media interviews as party leaders — including Biden — try to assure rank-and-file Democrats that Fetterman is fine and will be able to resume campaigning soon.
“I know he can’t wait to get back on the trail,” Biden said during remarks at last week's AFL-CIO convention in Philadelphia. “He’s looking good.”
Fetterman and his wife gave a 90-second video address played Saturday at the state party's committee meeting in Gettysburg. In it, Fetterman stressed the Shapiro-Fetterman ticket to go up against “the Oz-Mastriano extreme, bizarre and dangerous ticket.”
“I’m so proud to be one part of the ticket here," Fetterman said. "And this year we have Josh Shapiro to be our next governor. And let me just let you know that we will be back very soon, to be back up to 100% to be back in every one of our 67 counties, because Josh and I have always been committed to a full every-67-county campaign.”
Shapiro and Fetterman have a political relationship going back to at least 2016, when Fetterman hosted a fundraiser for Shapiro at his home in Braddock.
Still, Shapiro and Fetterman have at times had a strained relationship over conflicting stances on the state pardons board — and a report just days before the primary election by The Philadelphia Inquirer underscored that.
Citing unnamed people as the source, the Inquirer reported that Fetterman had threatened a couple of years ago to run for governor against Shapiro — unless Shapiro voted for certain applicants in front of the pardons board.
Shapiro did, but has denied that politics drove his votes or that any such conversation with Fetterman ever happened, and a spokesperson for the attorney general's office called the claim “nothing short of outrageous.” Fetterman has been silent about it.
Democrats say it is not a point of discussion among activists, and they are rather focused on what is on the line in the Nov. 8 election.
That election is about choosing between candidates “who are working for effective government that will serve all of our communities,” Guiney said, and candidates aligned with “people who are willing to sacrifice the fundamental fabric of our democracy for their personal gain.”